Abraham was probably expecting this. That’s where we have to start if we’re going to try to make sense of this uncomfortable story. At best that’s what it is, uncomfortable. It’s probably worse than that, this might be one of the places where those of us who grew up in church and spent a lot of time with these stories have an advantage, we’ve heard it so often that the shock value of it all doesn’t register anymore. Because it is a shocking turn of events. Try to imagine or remember reading through Genesis for the first time, waiting alongside Abraham and Sarah for God to fulfil God’s side of the bargain, to bring them this promised child. Remember or imagine the joy when it all comes together, when Sarah does indeed finally give birth to Isaac. And then the immediate follow up to that moment is this: God calling on Abraham to sacrifice the child they waited so long for.
It’s shocking to us, as readers, it’s an idea that’s so foreign that we don’t know how to process it, but it probably wasn’t that shocking to Abraham. We know that child sacrifice was not uncommon for this time in this part of the world. There’s debate over how prominent it was but we know it happened. There is a macabre kind logic in it, if you want God or the gods to bless your crops you offer the first fruits of the harvest, if you want your livestock to be blessed you offer the first and best of your flocks, so if you want God or the gods to bless your family…. It’s an idea that’s a part of what sociologists and folks who study the history of religious belief call “appeasement religions” which is every religion, pretty much, before Judaism. Remember, we’ve said this before, the baseline of all these faiths was that the gods did not care about people. At best they were indifferent, in some cases they were openly hostile. Think about the Greek myth of Prometheus, who is a Titan that Zeus punishes for eternity for the crime of giving humanity fire. That was how most cultures thought about their gods, they were the kind of beings who were upset that people could stay warm, have light at night, and cook their food if that meant the gods giving up something that was exclusively theirs. Your goal in life was to stay off their bad side. And to do that you offered them things. But what do you offer beings that are powerful beyond your imagination? It has to be something good right? It has to be something precious, something of worth. You offered them the best of your harvest and the best of your flocks and if you were really desperate, really desperate, you offered the most precious thing you could, you offered a child.
That idea isn’t foreign to Jewish thought either. We know of at least one king of Judah who sacrificed his child, the text isn’t really clear on who he sacrificed the child to but it happened. We also see the idea appear even if it isn’t full action – Hannah begs God for a child, and in exchange for her prayer being answered she gives Samuel back to God by taking him to the temple to serve. In Exodus 22 it is explicitly stated that God has a claim on the firstborn of the people in the same way as the firstborn of flocks.
So this command wouldn’t have come to Abraham as as much of a shock as it does us, he would have been more likely to assume this was something God might claim, something God might expect. But that doesn’t really help much because it doesn’t change the fact that after promising Abraham a child God commands Abraham to kill that child. And that seems so unlike what we expect from God. Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish theologian, wrote about being shaken to his core by this story because of the inconsistency – Abraham is being commanded to break a commandment, to kill. The explanations we often hear for this story aren’t great – the main one is that God was testing Abraham, seeing if Abraham valued to gift or the giver, similar to how Job is tested to see if he truly fears God or just follows because he’s been blessed, and that by being willing to go through with the sacrifice Abraham proves his faith. I don’t know about you but that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
And so that raises the question, how willing was Abraham to go through with it? Abraham went up on the mountain but he told his servants that were waiting that “we” would come back down. He responds to Isaac’s question by declaring that “the Lord will provide the sacrifice.” Abraham may have been expecting this request, he may have been aware of the possibility, but he does not seem to believe that it is something God will actually follow through on. Abraham believes that God can lay claim to anything and everything in his life, even his only son, but Abraham does not believe that God will. Every action that Abraham takes points to the fact that in the midst of a difficult and trying situation he trusts God to provide a way out.
Trust is the key word in that. Up until this point in the story, the problem God has faced with humanity is a problem of trust. When push comes to shove people always assume that they have their own interest in mind more than God does. Adam and Eve eat fruit from the tree God has told them not to eat from because the serpent says “God knows if you eat from it you’ll be like him and God doesn’t want that.” They believe that God is trying to deny them something they should be able to have. Later on, humanity attempts to build a tower to heaven, why? Maybe it is just that something in the human spirit compels us to build taller towers, but I think that they’re trying to reach heaven is significant. Because if we get to heaven we can see what God is hiding from us up there. Even Abraham has struggled to trust God at points, there are instances where he claims Sarah is his sister because he’s afraid he’ll be killed if people find out they are married instead of trusting that God will protect him. Faith is the ability to trust that God has our best interest at heart, that God isn’t like the gods Abraham was familiar with who needed to be bought off or appeased. That God isn’t keeping something from us or denying us something or setting us up for disappointment or failure. What Abraham demonstrates in this story isn’t a faith defined by being willing to give God anything, it is a faith defined by the trust that God isn’t going to ask for everything, that God isn’t like those other gods. This is not a god who makes outrageous demands for sacrifice, this is the God who provides the sacrifice.
That’s one of the reasons this story is so familiar to us, because of course that idea of God providing the sacrifice comes full circle in the life of Jesus, when God gives of God’s self to provide for the salvation of all creation. But long before that Abraham was starting to get the picture, this isn’t a god who takes, this is a God who gives. This isn’t a god who needs, this is a God who provides. This isn’t a god to fear, in the way we think of fear meaning constantly feel threatened by, this is God to trust.
That doesn’t solve all the problems with this story. The uncomfortable is still there. And that’s a good lesson in its own right, sometimes faith means wrestling with the uncomfortable and being ok with not clearing it all up. These uncomfortable moments in scripture exist and instead of ignoring them we should admit that they make us uneasy but seek truth from them anyway. And we also shouldn’t let the uncomfortable questions distract us from the biggest question: what kind God are you expecting? What kind of God do you think you’re dealing with? Has your image of God been shaped by what you see in the world, by those with power grabbing at more no matter the cost, only measuring worth by what someone can give them? Have angry street preachers convinced you of a terrible wrath that needs to be diverted? Have televangelists soured you on a God who keeps asking more of you while promising results that never come? Ignore those voices. Do like Abraham and trust what you know. Believe that this is a different kind of God. Believe that this is the God who gives and provides and is worthy of trust. Believe that this God provides the sacrifice, and makes for us a way to life, life lived to the fullest.